Can too much positivity and authenticity be a bad thing? According to a study published in the April 2019 issue of The Leadership Quarterly, the answer is yes, especially when it applies to leadership. Coauthor of the study and professor at Lund University in Sweden, Mats Alvesson, says, “We live in a society where idealized, grandiose images and aspirations dominate.” We then, as a culture, want as much as possible to be presented as good and impressive. Alvesson points out that talk about leadership falls into the trap of following popular trends that are not supported by facts. This then creates “a misleading, false, and sometimes hypocritical view of the world,” says Alvesson. When leaders are optimistic and unrealistic, coworkers risk ending up cynical and disappointed; given enough time, the leaders themselves may follow suit. Alvesson’s big takeaway? “Leadership does not work if it is not grounded in reality.”
Positivity can seem like a necessary attribute for leaders, but the authors of the study argue that trends in leadership theory are often based on a number of flaws including weak empirical studies, unsupported claims, and a simplistic view of corporate life. Among the problems that stem from this “positivity trap” is the fact that the overly-optimistic approach seldom works for groups. Veteran executive coach Amie Devero has observed this among her clients, and she attributes this to the fact that they are invested in the success of the fast-growth startups that they lead. She adds, “When leaders put on their cheerleading hats despite a reality that is poor, they seem like liars, or worse, like they are delusional.”
Anne Baum, Lehigh Valley executive and vice president of distribution channels and labor relations for Capital BlueCross, raises another issue that can come out of being too positive: it can deny your organization the benefit of your employees’ creativity and problem-solving skills. If you try to play off bad news, like losing millions in financials, by announcing what a great day it is, it’s likely that nobody will believe you, or worse, they might even think less of you. Instead, in this example Baum recommends looking at the financials and giving employees the opportunity to speak up and offer ideas of how to fix the situation By breezing over real problems, your team may not have the opportunity to find solutions.
True authenticity is difficult to determine because the pressure for conformity in professional circles is quite strong. Alvesson and his coauthor, Katya Einola, assistant professor at Finland’s Hanken School of Economics, argue that it is difficult to truly know our authentic selves. If you were to drop social norms that are adopted in favor of being authentic and put on display your irritating quirks and unvarnished views, things may not end particularly well for you. While genuine feedback can be valuable, it’s important to bear in mind that people are often polite and diplomatic.
Instead of striving for positivity and “authenticity,” what leaders should be looking for are ways to lead effectively. This means leaving behind popular leadership theories and balancing integrity and honesty against the increasing demands for conformism and impression management.